Reflective Practice: The Beginner’s Mind

When Stephens (2021) listed the soft skills of effective librarians and information professionals who engage in reflective practice, he started with curiosity. Of course, curiosity! We are librarians! It is our curiosity that got us here: the wanting to know how to find the information and satisfy the information need. 

Curiosity is a curious thing. Sometimes it’s slippery. Sometimes it wilts under pressure.  

From Happy by Mies Van Hout

I’ve been trying to cultivate curiosity, free from judgement, obligation and productivity for a long, long time. I’ve been trying, maybe too hard, to tap into that sweet thirst to seek out the who, what, where, when, why and hows of our childhoods. In my mind, unbridled curiosity is the antidote to all of life’s shoulds and have-tos. 

As part of my self-improvement efforts, I make myself bracelets with a resonant word or a phrase upon which I focus for a time. It is a visual reminder, an affirmation that I am become aware of each time I glance at my wrist. I used to purchase My Intent bracelets, bracelets with a short word or phrase embossed on metal coins. I afforded myself one per year upon which to ruminate. My first said “nourish”. That was the year I started meditating. My second said “be curious” (it was after the third one, “pause”, which my son made at the last Maker’s Fair in San Mateo, CA for a small $5 donation, that I decided it would be best if I bought alphabet beads with which to inexpensively DIY my rapidly changing affirmations to my heart’s content). 

“Be curious”. How do you digest this without making it sound like a command? Or a should? How do you open to curiosity (or anything, really) when your harsh inner critic is cracking the whip? 

In Buddhism, they talk about Beginner’s Mind as a way to cultivate curiosity. In short, Beginner’s Mind means to approach every situation, sensation, emotion, thought–every moment–as if it is the first time you’ve encountered it. This allows you to put your full presence into the experience of that moment, and subsequently, into how you receive and respond to that moment. “Oh! What is this that’s happening? Let me take a look”. This makes room for curiosity that is alive and playful, curiosity that is free from the constraints of task-mastering. 

Meditation teacher, Oren Jay Sofer, author of the book Say What You Mean: a mindful approach to nonviolent communication, wrote the following, which really resonates with Stephens’ (2021) teaching on reflective practice. Sofer (2018) said: “Every child is born with a natural desire to understand their world. Just as we have the innate capacity to be aware, we all have the capacity to be interested. … To genuinely understand something requires curiosity and care. Curiosity means that we are interested in learning. Learning requires humility; we must be willing to not know. To understand means ‘to stand beneath.’ To comprehend anything, we need to put aside our preconceived ideas and be open to new ways of seeing” (p. 78).

But here’s the rub: “Curiosity also requires patience,” Sofer (2018) wrote. “In order to be interested in something, to give attention, we also need to care.” He continues: “What’s essential is the quality of care itself, goodwill connected to the empathetic sense. It includes warmth, vulnerability, and flexibility. Care means that we are open to being affected by what we learn, that we are committed to seeing the other person’s humanity, and that we are willing to include their needs in the situation. … All of this is possible with practice” (p. 79). 

Curiosity takes patience and practice and care that is warm, vulnerable and flexible. In all of this I hear echoes of this week’s lecture about how librarians need these soft skills to shine in their wholehearted service and reflective practice. 

Last night, I listened to a parenting meditation through Headspace about Beginner’s Mind. The teacher told me to remember something that made me feel awe-struck. “Remember the feeling of awe”, she prompted. That, she said, is how to access the curiosity of childhood, the Beginner’s Mind that kids model and embody all the time. It worked to soften my heart last night (I remembered the powerful current of water that roared down a culvert near my house during the last atmospheric river system that passed through the Bay Area) and I am confident that a feeling of awe is something I can cultivate so much so that it becomes a default I can take with me into my work as an information professional, a sense of “wow, look at that! I want to know more!” Until then I will continue to work on allowing (this month’s bracelet along with “float on”, which has “love” on the opposite side, a nod to my summer in our kayak when I would pick up my oar and actually go with the flow. It is also a nod to my favorite Modest Mouse song, of the same theme).

All librarians and information professionals can use each encounter with a patron as a beginning, as a turn toward curiosity. Each and every interaction can be a chance to feel an humble sense of awe, even at the mere privilege to be the one trusted with that moment’s question.


Stephens, M. (2021). Reflective Practice [Lecture and Slides]. INFO 287 The Hyperlinked Library . San Jose State University.

Sofer, O. J. (2018). Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication. Boulder, CO: Shambala.

6 responses to “Reflective Practice: The Beginner’s Mind”

  1. Talk about lifelong learning! I love your open-minded approach to learning, where going with the flow is hand in hand with questioning and adding to knowledge. I was reminding of the “Messy Learning” article in the readings, although I wondered a bit about how messy learning works in libraries and one-off events. For extended classes it makes so much sense, but I worry that if things are too messy and the timing is too short, people might give up before getting the payoff. What are your thoughts on that?

  2. Hi Arwen!
    Thank you for tuning in and for your supportive feedback. You ask an interesting question. I think you could make room for messy learning in the beginning of a one-off by allowing students to work alone and then move them into groups, as in let them sweat by themselves and then let them see what happens when minds combine. So maybe it would semi-structured messiness? I also think you can have a lot of fun with the messy research process because it is SO messy!! Let students research on their own and then guide them through it? Lots to think about. Thanks for getting my brain working!
    All the best,

  3. This was so encouraging and interesting. Thank you for sharing the insights into your own reflective practice. I love the idea of the bracelets and having the alphabet on hand to change it up. I think mine for the day would be BREATHE.

    1. @michael That word is one of my staples, too! I have one that says “breathe”, one that says “breathe love” and another that says “love breathe”. All bases covered. LOL!

  4. My kids are grown now and I no longer work in a public library, so a rarely have the opportunity to see children’s books. My eye is so drawn to the image you shared from “Happy” by Mies Van Hout. I think reading children’s books or rather, staring at illustrations in children’s books was a reflective practice I had lost touch with. As you say, curiosity takes work. And one certainly does have to keep up with things that make us curious, even when they fall out of view.

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